Disrupted! Reimagining Delta & Amtrak with Future Entrepreneurs

Deconstructing and disrupting mobility

As the two student teams each took turns standing in front of the white board covered with hastily scrawled notes ranging from “connect, movement, service, devices, automate” to “How are you going to sell your product?” it was clear that the class was excited to pitch its ideas. Two completely new company concepts were hatched in the preceding hour, and everyone in the room had participated in that process. Meanwhile, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief that the group exercise had actually worked!

This was a late afternoon session with the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program at the University of Michigan where I’d been recruited by a colleague to speak to the class on Business Models in Mobility and the Internet of Things. They were a group of promising undergrads who’d demonstrated a passion for entrepreneurship and planned to pursue business ideas after graduation. I figured that nobody actually wanted to sit and listen to me lecture about the state of the industry for 90 minutes. What better way to explore entrepreneurship than by doing it?

Taking inspiration from a session of Transportation Camp which I’d attended a few weeks earlier, I collected some articles for the group to read in advance and put together the class outline. When our Thursday came around, I kicked off the session with a challenge:

You’re a smart group. You’ll naturally be inclined to think about building products with the latest, greatest technology. Start first by thinking about the value that you want to create for potential customers.

This approach is one I’ve come to live and breathe working with startups at Techstars, and one they absolutely needed to focus on, particularly with so many engineers in the room.

After a brief discussion on a definition of mobility, rapid changes taking place in IoT, and a run through of business models applicable to startups, we got down to the heart of the class: choosing a mobility model to deconstruct and disrupt. Students brainstormed then lobbied for companies and industries that they wanted to take on. Nike, reimagined as a potential mobility service, ranked on the final list, but in the end, after a caucus-style vote, Amtrak and the airline industry emerged as targets. Warnings of high infrastructure costs and intense government regulation (ownership!) didn’t deter the students. I knew I liked this class.

We reviewed several key elements of a mobility solution, including vehicle types, ownership models, communication strategies, boarding, routing, and driver and rider motivations. Then the groups got working. They would alter one or more of the ingredients of the existing company, identify how this would create a new value proposition for their customers, and figure out what the revenue generation plan might be.

Team “airline-disruption” quickly settled on Delta due to its dominance in Michigan. They looked at the passenger experience, check in process, and routes. I challenged them to see if they could do anything to make getting to the gates at the far ends of the McNamara Terminal in Detroit any easier. (If you’ve ever flown into this hub, you know exactly what I mean.) Team “Amtrak-disruption” initially formed because one student was annoyed at the sound of trains rumbling by her apartment every night. This group’s initial thoughts included boarding and ticketing before they pivoted and took the bait I threw out. Might there be a model that challenged passenger rail that didn’t rely on trains?

The airline disruptors fleshed out an idea to create a monthly subscription for frequent business travelers. For a few thousand dollars each month, flyers could access as many trips as possible and enjoy frictionless billing. They would stay away from operating their own airline and simply layer on top of existing services. The passenger rail team, newly branded as Hitchhiker’s Guide to America, proposed a long distance ridesharing platform that would shift train trips into empty auto capacity and put interesting people together for the journey.

The students couldn’t have set the stage for a closing thought any better if they’d tried. I asked who’d heard of Zimride. One hand went up. I asked who’d heard of Lyft. Everyone had. As we all packed up, I suggested they look up John Zimmer and Logan Green and told everyone they were well on their way as future entrepreneurs.

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